I came to S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad series late, only finding out about City of Brass when its sequel Kingdom of Copper (available now!) was being advertised. But there’s been buzz about Chakraborty for a while, and Book Riot has been very excited for a very long time to see the sophomore book in the series.
The hype is well-deserved. I flew through City of Brass in a weekend. Chakraborty’s enthralling tale of Middle Eastern magic, full of enough political intrigue to make George R.R. Martin blush, is “can’t look away” reading at its finest. The only thing that eased my mind as I got close to the end of the first book was the sequel sitting next to me on the couch.
That’s why I was thrilled when I got the chance to talk to Shan about Daevabad, New Jersey, and everything in-between.
On Kingdom of Copper
S.A. Chakraborty: Of course! Thank you for talking to me.
Anthony Karcz: I have to confess, I missed the initial hype. Kingdom of Copper is the perfect example of “the best way to sell your first book is to write a second.”
S.A. Chakraborty: Yes it is.
Anthony Karcz: Everybody was super buzzy about Kingdom of Copper and when I started reading City of Brass and I was like “Oh my gosh how did I miss this when it first came out?”
S.A. Chakraborty: I always like to capture a new audience!
Anthony Karcz: Along those lines, how would you sum up Kingdom of Copper for someone like me who’s just now getting into the Daevabad trilogy?
S.A. Chakraborty: First of all, I think you do have to read the first book! [laughs]
I think a lot of people now are looking for fantasy that’s a mix of both grim political reality and also a little lighter, with some moments of humor.
The book is about a con artist in 18th century Cairo. She finds out the magical world that she’s always sort of dismissed is very much real. Even more, she has a place for herself in this magical royal court and it’s very, very dangerous.
I really wanted to look at politics and oppression and history in a way that mixes magic and history and very much looked at the morally grey issues of the characters.
And, you know, have some fun while doing it!
Anthony Karcz: The quickest way to my heart is a good con, so I was ready to go from page one.
S.A. Chakraborty: It’s interesting because if you look back, stories like that have always been popular. I pulled a lot of that from old folktales. People have always loved the story of a good hearted thief who gets in over their head and emerges unscathed after adventures.
We have been telling stories like that for thousands of years! I think there’s something that we like about people who subvert the laws and the leaders that we ourselves are shaking our fists at, but wouldn’t really have the guts to do something about.
Anthony Karcz: I remember reading something about you saying that this series was almost fan fiction for these thousand year old tales.
S.A. Chakraborty: Yes!
Anthony Karcz: I love that! One of my writing instructors back in college started our first class with the very solemn intonation that “There are no new stories.” And I was like “OK, what do we do from there?”
S.A. Chakraborty: Right? You know I like looking at old folktales and old story traditions. It’s very humanizing to realize that, even a thousand years ago, in a society very different than ours, we were enjoying these same kind of fun tales.
These aren’t religious texts, nothing is sacred. It’s pulp! Like a centaur fighting a statue over a pot of gold. I imagine a fellow fantasy fan back then getting off a long day of being a scribe at the palace and enjoying these kind of pulpy tales. That brings the past alive for me.
Anthony Karcz: An ongoing trend I’m noticing in current fantasy is that we’re finally moving away from very Eurocentric fantasy tales. Cutting my teeth on fantasy in the ’80s there were these very Tolkien-esque fantasy tropes and nothing else. I love that we’re finally hearing different voices in fantasy right now.
S.A. Chakraborty: I came to fantasy a little bit late, and I suppose that specific definition and that history have always seemed filtered and politicized. People have been telling fantastical tales since the first century. It’s not really something that was a white thing that started with Lord of the Rings.
You can enjoy what is considered Western canon. I like a lot of it. Just realize that, if we’re taking that as our starting point, as the definition of the genre, that it’s a very political definition.
We’re seeing other voices and we should! There have always been other voices. It’s just gatekeeping and systems of oppression that have kept them from being published and publicized by the major publishers. There should be lots of these other voices because they’ve always been there. Everybody tells these stories.
Anthony Karcz: That’s a great point because up until the past 10 years or so, that gatekeeping mentality really has been in effect. It’s great to see it finally starting to come down, because you’re right. People have been telling tales all over the world for as long as we’ve been able to tell tales.
S.A. Chakraborty: Exactly.
We took a break and talked about Shan’s New Jersey roots and bonded a bit over mutual memories of the Jersey Shore. When we came back, I asked about another famous fantasy figure from Jersey.
Anthony Karcz: So how often do you get into discussions about Kamala Khan, since she’s got that interesting trifecta of Islam and Jersey and fantasy (well, comics, but still).
S.A. Chakraborty: You’re the first! [laughs]
I think people always think of me in relation to old epic fantasy stuff instead of comics and contemporary, but I’m a huge fan of Ms. Marvel. I’m a huge fan of G. Willow Wilson’s novels. Like, I don’t even read a lot of comics, but I read that because it’s Islam and it’s got all these little Jersey things.
Anthony Karcz: So after the Daevabad trilogy, will we see these characters in Jersey City?
S.A. Chakraborty: Ha! That would be so much fun. An old senior version of Nahri kicking around in Jersey City, just seeing what’s up.
Anthony Karcz: Because you know, there’s always that one old person that’s telling you a story “Back in the 1800s…” and you’re just nodding along, not listening, “Sure…sure…”
S.A. Chakraborty: Well, they are generational!
Anthony Karcz: Right! Speaking of, how did you get your head around writing for characters that are so long lived?
S.A. Chakraborty: What I wanted to do with this series is look at the long arc of history. Societies are very complicated. You see a new group sweep in on the heels of a revolution, promising all these new and great things. You’ve got your new king, your new royal family and within a few generations they’re all corrupted by the things that they fought the previous group over. It says a lot about the natural entropy of human society.
I wanted to show that everybody has their hands dirty at different levels. You have characters who don’t neatly fit into a group of “These people are just oppressed” or “These people are just the persecutors.” Like in any society, they each think they’re the right ones.
I wanted to delve into that and talk about learning when you’re not the ones in the right and what it means to be from a group that is doing terrible things. Maybe they’re also doing some right things? But how do you address that in your soul and decide to move forward?
A lot of this sort of societal grind, not a lot of people can break out of that. It’s messy and it’s complicated and actually fixing things and doing things and changing is a much longer, complicated process than I think we give it credit for.
Anthony Karcz: I think that’s very relevant right now.
S.A. Chakraborty: I find myself seeking out stories that realistically show that the world can be a dark and deeply unjust place. You find yourself fighting for a fix that you don’t even think is going to happen. Finding slivers of light in what feels like total darkness.
I think we want stories that show us you hold on because something might be better or it might be better for your children. Even if it’s not, you hold on because that’s the right thing to do. It helps you hold on to your soul. I find myself wanting to write a stories like that and seek out stories like that.
Anthony Karcz: Along those lines, what are you reading right now?
S.A. Chakraborty: I just finished up Zen Cho‘s new book, a light fantasy which I really enjoyed. I’ve been reading a lot of historical fiction as well. Right now I’m reading The Watermelon Boys, an account by an Iraqi author of the Arab revolt in World War 1. You know, when we think of World War 1, we’re thinking The Western Front and Downton Abbey. I like seeing it from the perspective of a different group of people.
I’m also looking forward to Sylvia Moreno-Garcia’s new book (Gods of Jade and Shadow). It deals with a Mayan god coming back and it’s set in Mexico and it sounds very good. Tasha Suir’s book Empire of Sand was probably my standout for last year. It just came out in November. I highly recommend it.
Outliners vs. Pantsers
Anthony Karcz: I’m making an assumption here, but are you an outliner?
S.A. Chakraborty: Oh no! No. I wish I was an outliner! I am an outliner with everything in life. I have, like, four To-Do lists. I have everything planned out. And I can not outline stories.
I tried to a little bit. But I’m one of those people, I have to write out the story to see where things are going. A line will pop in my head and it will change an entire subplot. Some of the most spectacular adventure scenes in the book came to me as I was writing them. Like “It would be so cool to make the river rise up as a creature!”
It’s funny because people, especially people who’ve read Book 2, have been asking me “What happens in Book 3?” And I’m like “I have a vague idea? When I write it I will tell you!”
Anthony Karcz: It gives me hope to hear that, because so often I sit down and think “Well, I thought I was writing this scene today, but apparently not!”
S.A. Chakraborty: Exactly! That’s exactly how I work. And it was hard because City of Brass was my first book. Then when I got the deal, I was like “I have to write a book in a year!” So I read all the advice that was just “Draft first. Outline and draft!” It took me a while to say “No, this is my method, even if it means I’m not following what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Anthony Karcz: So about that deal. I hear it’s quite the story…
S.A. Chakraborty: It went very fast and very quickly! It’s really such a blur in my head. This was the first book I ever wrote and I didn’t think it was going to sell at all.
When I was querying for an agent, I was getting the exact same responses I thought I was going to get for a 500-page book on Islamic history! I ended up signing with a newer agent and it went on fire! Within a week, we went to auction and ended up getting a great deal with the best, most supportive publisher. It came very quickly.
It went from “It’s not going to happen. That’s OK. I’ll work on something different.” to where I’m at six months later…and I’m still trying to catch up!
Anthony Karcz: Right—because you went from writing it off to “I’ve got the next three years of my life completely locked in to this.”
S.A. Chakraborty: Yeah! I went from doing this as a hobby to “This is my full time job!” How does that even work?
Anthony Karcz: Have you found it hard to balance that shift?
S.A. Chakraborty: I am very fortunate that I can write full time. My daughter entered preschool right when I needed to start getting time down. My husband has a good job. But it’s hard finding the balance between family care and book stuff.
With creative work, it’s hard because sometimes you’re just in the zone, but your kid still needs to get picked up from school and you need to make dinner. Other life things call away from it.
It helps now that I think of it as my job, that this is my responsibility. Whereas when I was writing for myself, I often felt like I was being selfish. You shouldn’t feel selfish! You should absolutely be able to sneak away and do this for yourself.
Anthony Karcz: Totally! It’s great though that you have that support system. So many people don’t get that.
S.A. Chakraborty: Yes, exactly.
Anthony Karcz: Thank you so much for chatting! Good luck on Book 3 and hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk again!
S.A. Chakraborty: Thank you!